An open letter on campus diversity

March 29, 2005

John D. Wiley, Chancellor

While recent snowfalls might seem to argue the point, the equinox has come and gone, and it's officially spring. Many see this as a time of renewal, but it is one of reflection as well. Seniors are placing perspective on the closing weeks of their undergraduate experiences, parents are anticipating a summer of closer interaction with their children, and students, staff and faculty are wondering if they have done enough with the opportunities presented to them during the course of the last many months.

In many instances, the process is visible. For example, people are questioning openly the continued engagement of American military personnel in Iraq, the priorities reflected in ongoing discussions concerning the state budget, the appropriateness of animal research on campus and the adequacy of our efforts to curb sweatshop abuses in the production of university apparel. Questioning is part of life at a great university, and it must be embraced, even if it is uncomfortable. And that is why I am writing to you today. I want to share my sense of how well we are doing in addressing one of the great challenges facing us now and into the future: our diversity and how we handle its many nuances and opportunities.

Here's the short version: We remain absolutely committed to building an inclusive community free of social bias and exclusion. However, although we have many active and wonderful initiatives under way that should bring us closer to the goal, we haven't been vocal enough — or decisive enough — about our commitment to engender the community confidence necessary to achieve success. I want to correct that, beginning now. Diversity is both a fact of life and a largely unrealized promise, and it is high time we begin to unify in our resolve to explore both its difficulties and its rewards.

Few in our community would admit to holding overt biases against others on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, geographical background or other personal qualities. In fact, I'd guess that not many people walk around with that kind of animus in mind. Yet, to reach into the true challenges and opportunities presented by diversity, it is necessary to dig deeper, into the subtleties of whom we like to spend time with, what conduct offends us, how we respond to "difference," and what it feels like to be one of those who is "different" and who is facing life every day from outside the visible norm.

We cannot engage fully with these questions except as a community. I would like to reinvigorate our efforts in this regard, promoting understanding with the same vigor previously given to developing the broad portfolio of diversity programs and offices at work across the campus because — despite earnest effort and an investment of significant resources — these measures still have not generated the participation or awareness necessary to realize meaningful acceptance, nor have they prompted sufficient change.

In recognizing this failing, however, it is important to also note the positive impact of individual actions taking place every day, in a multitude of contexts, to ensure respect, civility and common understanding. We need this energy and commitment to continue. We also need to bring it to a more communal level.

On Thursday, April 28, several student organizations will host a Student Diversity Forum from 5-8:15 p.m. in Bascom Hall. Both Provost Peter Spear and I will attend the 7:30 p.m. plenary session, and we invite you to join us. We will have available an inventory of the many programs and initiatives currently under way to enhance campus diversity. We look forward to hearing your perspectives on what we're doing right and what can be improved. Most of all, we hope you will join us in writing an agenda for the future.

For their part, throughout the next year, all deans, major unit directors, department chairs and other senior administrative leaders will participate in formal workshops designed to promote social awareness and a greater appreciation for the complexities of diversity. I will ask the participants to develop additional ideas for addressing diversity concerns within their respective units, and to adopt an open and inclusive process of discussion.

Similar efforts already are under way involving some faculty and staff, and they will be extended as soon as possible. In addition, students are helping to redesign the activities of SOAR and Wisconsin Welcome to more clearly outline relevant issues and expectations. In the fall, we will designate two days for a campuswide diversity forum, a key opportunity to assess areas of gain and continued challenge.

These are starting points. We all get tired from struggling with the intractable tensions of not simply getting along, while also reaching out to ensure that everyone can succeed and feel good about their experience at this university. But we must strive to achieve that level of humanity, and I'm asking you to add your voice and energy to the endeavor. We cannot continue to pursue diversity objectives with quiet competence, as has been the case, because that approach lacks the visibility and openness crucial to community approbation and support. With so much opportunity and so much at stake, we must engage all voices equally. That is what we are going to do.